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Free Speech Prevails in 10-Year Censorship Battle

Aden Fine,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project
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January 21, 2009

Free speech on the Internet is a big winner today. The Supreme Court earlier announced that it will not hear the government’s latest appeal of the ban on enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), the federal law that would criminalize constitutionally protected speech on the Internet in the name of protecting children. That means that this case is now finally over, and that the lower courts’ rulings that COPA is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment are final. This is a terrific result, and the end of a long, hard-fought battle to keep the Internet free of government censorship.

This case was filed more than 10 years ago. It has already been to the Supreme Court twice. In the Supreme Court’s second decision, issued in 2004, the Court upheld the injunction against enforcement of COPA, rejecting the government’s argument that the statute was constitutional. The government nevertheless decided to continue fighting, and a trial was held in 2006 to see if any facts had changed to justify the law. Following more than four weeks of trial, the District Court again ruled that COPA was unconstitutional. Last year, the Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion.

Today’s decision by the Supreme Court not to review the case once again reaffirms what the courts have consistently said for the last 10 years: the government cannot censor lawful speech on the Internet in the name of protecting children. Government should not be in the business of deciding what we all can and cannot see or do on the Internet. Those decisions are for all of us to make, and for all parents to make, not for government to make.

COPA was not the first time that Congress has tried to restrict lawful speech on the Internet in the name of protecting children. The Supreme Court also struck down Congress’s first attempt, the Communications Decency Act. While we are hopeful that Congress has learned its lesson, this probably won’t be the last we hear of government attempts to restrict speech on the Internet. It will, however, be the last we hear of COPA. At long last, COPA is finally dead, and that is a huge victory for free speech on the Internet.

UPDATE: Watch Chris Hansen, Director of the First Amendment Working Group, talk more about internet content filters and libraries here.

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